Tag Archives: Sarah Foot

Seminars XCVI, XCVII & XCVIII: lectures and learning in Oxford

Returning the story of my academic life to these shores, there is a triennial lecture series here in Oxford established in the name of Elias Avery Lowe, the man behind Codices Latini Antiquiores, which if you’re a certain sort of scholar is a second Bible (and with nearly as many books) and if you’re any other sort of scholar you may never use.1 He was a palæographer, and the lectures are about palæography, and so it was a good sign of, I don’t know, something, that this year they were given by Professor David Ganz. I had hoped to make it to these because David is always erudite and interesting and has often been a great help to me, but I was thwarted in this by various factors of timing and I was only able to get to the second one, “Latin Manuscript Books Before 800, 2: scribes and patrons”, which was given on Monday 16th May. This is to say, as you may have spotted, that it was the day after Kalamazoo ended, and so I was there on the back of a few hours bad sleep on an airliner and a five-hour time-shift, but I was there.

Letter from Jerome to Pope Damasus IV on the correction of the Bible, in Codex Sangallensis 48

Letter from Jerome to Pope Damasus IV on the correction of the Bible, in Codex Sangallensis 48 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The sad result of this is that my notes, while quite entertaining where legible, I think don’t always have much to do with what David was saying, as my subconscious was clearly getting the upper hand of my listening ear at some points. Nonetheless, I feel fairly safe in telling you that David talked about:

  • copyists, starting with the kinds of errors and corrections that we know about because they were faithfully copied over (apparently St Jerome excused himself in one manuscript from fourteen different sorts of scribal error, which is proof if any were needed that pedantry does not bar one from Heaven);
  • about the diffuseness of this sample and the very small number of scribes we have who show up more than once, which shows the vast number of books there must once have been if there was even occasional employment for all these people that we only get one glimpse of (like die-links in numismatics, this, I like it so I hope David actually said it);
  • about the authority for changes, and the respect for manuscript integrity that leads to colophons telling us who copied a manuscript’s exemplar being carried over into the therefore anonymous copies that we have, which happens in four ninth-century manuscripts of things copied by Bœthius whose actual scribes we have no idea about;
  • and about how difficult it was, when only 8% of manuscripts (taking Lowe’s CLA as an inventory) of this period even name scribes, of working out who was employing them. Almost all of those 8% are churchmen, so ‘the Church’ would be a simplistic answer, but as long as one of them is a notary (and Vandalguis (sp?) who wrote our manuscript of the Laws of the Alemans claimed so to be) there must have been other structures.

I am guessing that David will call me out on any errors here, in fact I entreat him so to do as I’m sure there must be some and I don’t want to copy them over…

Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, where Professor
Sarah Foot is a lay canon by right of her post

Then two days later a rather different occasion, involving more gowns and gilt and fewer images, when Sarah Foot, who is Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History in these parts, gave her long-delayed inaugural lecture, “Thinking with Christians: doing ecclesiastical history in a secular age”. In checking the date I find that the Theology Faculty evidently recorded this and already have it online as a podcast, so you could listen to it yourself, but what you will get if you do is quite a clever balancing act between the interests of various parts of her audience, the Anglo-Saxonists who know Sarah’s work,2 the theologians and canons who are her new colleagues, and the University’s old hands who will turn out for any event where lots of people will be wearing gowns in public and there will be free wine. Thus there is much about the history of the Chair to which Sarah has now succeeded and the denominational politics of the English Church that have sometimes dictated what the theologians of the University thought were the important things for a church historian to be working on (viz. the origins and basis of their denomination), and about the increasingly social basis of the discipline since the 1970s (in a kaleidoscopic barrage of citation that included Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Robert Moore, Clifford Geertz and Jacques le Goff to name but a few) and the threat she perceived in it that ecclesiastical history per se might become (as with so much else) just a particular flavour of cultural history. Sarah suggested that having had a ‘cultural turn’ now it might be good to have a ‘religious turn’, linking faith and thought as a theme of study. If that sounds like an interesting manifesto, you could go listen to how she argues it.

Psalm 23 in the St Hubert Bible, one of the manuscripts of Theodulf of Orléans's corrected text of the Bible (British Library MS Additional 24142)

Psalm 23 in the St Hubert Bible, one of the manuscripts of Theodulf of Orléans's corrected text of the Bible (British Library MS Additional 24142)

After that, to my shock, I seem not to have been to any kind of academic public speaking for a week and a half. Perhaps I was full up, or perhaps (more likely) teaching and deadlines collaborated to keep me from it. Either way, I resumed with Laura Carlson’s presentation of a paper called “An Encyclopedic Theology: Theodulf of Orléans and the Carolingian Wiki-Bible” to the Oxford Medieval Seminar on the 30th May. I don’t want to say too much about this, because I notice that Ms Carlson has what looks like a related paper coming up at the Institute of Historical Research and so to do so might constitute spoilers. Broadly, however, she was drawing out the difference between two different Bible-editing projects running simultaneously at the high point of the Carolingian Renaissance, Alcuin‘s single authoritative text as found in the Tours Bibles, and Theodulf’s comparative version, which drew as she sees it on a considerable range of texts, Italian and Anglo-Saxon themselves drawing on Greek, Vulgate, Cassiodorian and Irish traditions, and tried to incorporate the useful bits of all of them, as well as occasional Hebrew readings, slices of Patristic theological commentary, Visigothic Law and Spanish spellings (because, as we have discussed, Theodulf thought he was a Goth). Now, whether all this justified the title “Wiki-Bible” or not would be a vexed question (`citation needed’!) but it does go to show once more that the idea that the entire mission of the Carolingian intellectual court was standardisation needs questioning. Not least because, as Ms Carlson pointed out in questions, neither Alcuin or Theodulf ever cited their own versions of the Bible when doing other sorts of study!


1. E. A. Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores: a palaeographical guide to Latin ms. prior to the 9th century (1934-1971), 12 vols, with various subsequent addenda by others. Lowe’s lesser work is largely assembled in a very handsome two-volume collection, Palaeographical Papers, ed. Ludwig Bieler (Oxford 1972). I’m assuming that David Ganz’s publications need no introduction here but if you didn’t realise quite how voluminous they are then this list on the Regesta Imperii OPAC will give you an idea. More than can easily go in a footnote!

2. Very lately added to with her Æthelstan, the first King of England (New Haven 2011) but perhaps so far more famous for her work on female religious, such as Veiled Women: the Disappearance of Nuns from Anglo-Saxon England (Aldershot 2000), 2 vols, or on the development of the idea of England, classically in “The making of ‘Angelcynn‘: English identity before the Norman Conquest” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 6 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 25-50, repr. in Roy M. Liuzza (ed.), Old English literature: critical essays (New Haven 2002), pp. 51-78, as well as of course much more here also.

Bones in Bristol: conference report

There is something a bit strange about this age of the Internet. I went to a half-day conference in Bristol the other day, which I knew about merely because Larry Swain had posted about it to the Heroic Age blog (thankyou Larry!) That is, I heard about this event a little way across the UK from me because a guy in the USA posted something to a blog, hosted in California, for a journal which is hosted in Newfoundland, about some bones found in Germany. (I guess you will have seen at least one of the announces that made it to the press that same morning, but if you didn’t, Melissa Snell collected several reports at her About.com blog. See also this more extensive consideration by Michelle of Heavenfield.) The conference was called “Princess Eadgyth of Wessex and her World”, and it was about a recent find of some bones in a grave marked with that name in Magdeburg Cathedral.

Sculpture of Emperor Otto the Great and his queen Eadgyth in Magdeburg Cathedral

Sculpture of Emperor Otto the Great and his queen Eadgyth in Magdeburg Cathedral (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s actually very hard to know what I can say about this, because the paper that actually presented on the subject of the find included a lot of information that was presented as `not for the press’ (though there was a small BBC team there, one of whom I’m pretty sure was someone I went to college with). It will eventually be released at a press conference later this year when various tests have allowed them to be certain of a few more things. So I have to avoid saying anything that isn’t already out there, for which reason I shall borrow part of what the BBC were already told:

Remains of one of the earliest members of the English royal family may have been unearthed in a German cathedral, a Bristol University research team says.

They believe a near-complete female skeleton, aged 30 to 40, found wrapped in silk in a lead coffin in Magdeburg Cathedral is that of Queen Eadgyth.

The granddaughter of Alfred the Great, she married Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor, in 929. She died 17 years later, at 36.

The team aims to prove her identity by tracing isotopes in her bones.

Professor Mark Horton, of Bristol’s department of archaeology and anthropology, said: “We know that Saxon royalty moved around quite a lot, and we hope to match the isotope results with known locations around Wessex and Mercia, where she could have spent her childhood.

“If we can prove this truly is Eadgyth, this will be one of the most exciting historical discoveries in recent years.”

Their preliminary findings are to be announced later at a conference at the university.

And that’s what happened and I was there and now I can’t tell you what extra stuff they had—indeed, the BBC already seems to have most of what I thought was under wraps, but the few bits I’m sure weren’t for release were really cool. So watch some suitable space for their final formal announcement. Obviously, they need the isotope analysis that Bristol are now doing before they can announce anything completely definitive, but there will be a lot to talk about whichever way the strontium inclines. Meanwhile, if you want more commentary on it you can enjoy this Yahoo News report in which someone manages to get Simon Keynes to admit the justice of a comparison to Princess Diana.

Textile fragments from the grave of the woman who may have been Queen Eadgyth

Textile fragments from the grave of the woman who may have been Queen Eadgyth

So, instead the baldest of reports. There was an introduction by Professor Mark Horton, and then a lengthy explanation of the finds and what was being done with them by Professor Harald Meller of the Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte Halle, which he plugged extensively in the course of the talk and which does seem like a really interesting institution with some innovative ways of dealing with the prehistoric. He is the head of the local archæological bureau, so all of this has metaphorically landed on his desk. He is a big fan of hugely collaborative projects; they already have about forty different experts involved on this, but he wants more and asked us to mention it to any art historians or, especially, medieval textile specialists who might be interested. I realise that there are some reading who have such interests, though they may not feel that they have this level of expertise, but I mention it in case you know people who should know. I can supply contact details to any commentators.

The sarcophagus from Magdeburg Cathedral that bears the name of Queen Eadgyth

The sarcophagus from Magdeburg Cathedral that bears the name of Queen Eadgyth

Anyway, that was the most exciting bit. But there were also three other papers, setting the finds and their supposed identity into their wider, and local, context:

  • Sarah Foot, speaking to the title of “Eadgyth and the West Saxon Royal Family”, who had apparently thought that her biography of King Æthelstan (Eadgyth’s half-brother) was finished till she heard the previous paper, gave us a brand-new reconstruction of Eadgyth’s family and their place in European politics;
  • Michael Hare and Caroline Heighway spoke about “The Cult of St Oswald and the Minster of St Oswald’s, Gloucester”, because Eadgyth seems (according to Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, by whom Simon Keynes was forced to liken Eadgyth to Diana) to have been a big fan of Oswald and claimed descent from him, something that Professor Foot’s paper rejected though I don’t see how we can know, given how little we know of Eadgyth’s maternal ancestry; the site, anyway, was dug in the 1980s and reached its peak of popularity at exactly Eadgyth’s time;
  • and Michael Hare alone presenting about “Anglo-Saxon Berkeley – history and topography”, which had to be cut lots because the other papers had overrun, but which was still an inspiring demonstration of how much a determined effort can get out of even Saxon-period evidence for a site and its use with several juicy disputes over the property and propriety of this sometime nunnery to observe.

Attendance wasn’t huge and the hospitality was well-intentioned but slightly inadequate. Mainly it was strange to be in Bristol again, a town where I used to have family, and know no-one present except Professor Foot, but it was still cool to be in on the inside of secret tenth-century knowledge, however minor, and to meet some new people in the field, and with a bit of luck I didn’t look too weird despite being over-dressed, from Cambridge and a Hispanist charter specialist at a conference about Anglo-Saxon and German archæology…

Seminary XXII: get a life, King Æthelstan

(Since I drafted this post and then foolishly fell off the Interweb for ten days, the renowed Magistra has put up her own post about this same seminar, but as her analysis goes rather deeper, I think this summary is still useful. Please see it, not as a substitute for her post, but rather as a taster merely…)

King Athelstan offering a copy of Bede’s Life of Saint Cuthbert to the saint, from the book

On 27 February the IHR Earlier Middle Ages seminar was absolutely packed out, the crowd having been brought by the promise of Professor Sarah Foot speaking to the title “Should King Æthelstan Get a Life?” The question has been occasioned by her project to give the man, if not a life, at least a biography. After all, he was the first ruler of all England, rex totius britanniae as his coins proclaim him, he married his sisters into half the royal families of Europe, was vanquisher of the Danes, one of the foremost men of his times, he should be a grand subject. But really we don’t know very much. Most years we have an idea of something that he did; but there are several where we just don’t have anything. There are, we were told, a few entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 39 more-or-less acceptable charters, a bit of hagiographical material, some foreign notices and a poem. There may once have been an actual Life, as Michael Wood has most recently argued, but if so it survives only in the work of William of Malmesbury and we don’t know what he did to it. So actually, writing any conventional kind of biography is rather difficult, and drawing the man and his personality, other than a fascination with relics that led to the suggestion that really, he possibly did need to get out more (except when he was touring the country and defeating his enemies obviously, but the problem is that a king who does that looks like every other successful king and what the man himself was like, other than lucky and active, is even harder to tell when it fits a stereotype so well).

So there was a lot of musing on what kind of biography can be written, not just for Æthelstan but for any early medieval figure, and as I have ambitions in this line myself, that was interesting; I’m also grateful for having 150 gabby charters rather than 39 formal ones, even if I don’t have any chronicles. But Professor Foot also took a couple of examples of nuggets of information from which real sense of personality could be squeezed, mainly the law-codes (though Steven Baxter and others worried that these were recorded at sufficient remove from him that authorship and voice become very difficult things to second-guess), and that left some hope that when she is finally able to write this book, it will have some ideas and perspectives on King Æthelstan that were never before combined.

A silver penny of Athelstan naming him as King of All Britain

Edit: botched link to Magistra’s post fixed, trackback perhaps added.